After three albums of breezy, brazen Britpop, in which frontman Eddie Argos discoursed on everything from his favorite breakfast cereal to how much he loves '80s shoulda-been-bigger rockers the Replacements — you knew Art Brut would eventually come to this. The good times, the fun songs, the fucking around for fucking-around's sake — they weren't going to last forever.
It's time to get serious.
Serious — as in songs about funerals. Serious as in a heightened sense of structure to all the noise bouncing off the pub walls. Serious as in — gasp! — Argos taking singing lessons and actually weaving his way in and out of tunes rather than speak-shouting his lyrics like an Anglo, harder-to-understand version of the Hold Steady's Craig Finn. Yep, it's all come to this.
On their just-released fourth album of smart-ass indie rock, Brilliant! Tragic!, Art Brut tone down a notch or two their caustic jabs at rock stars, hipsters, and post-ironic douchebags. The British quintet is still a barometer for pop/junk culture and still finds room for songs like the one about Axl Rose ("When the world has got you by the fucking throat, who do you want in your corner? Axl Rose!" goes the chorus).
But there's also a dense fog hanging over some of the tracks, like they knew that you knew that they were going to have to move on eventually. After all, as much as we love 2005's Bang Bang Rock & Roll, 2007's It's a Bit Complicated, and 2009's Art Brut vs. Satan, can anyone really pick out what's different about them?
Brilliant! Tragic! will at least be distinguished as the Art Brut album on which Eddie Argos learned how to sing. "I never even really attempted to sing before," he says. "I mean, I still can't sing. But I'm trying now."
The Pixies' Black Francis produced the new album, and just as he did on Art Brut vs. Satan, he slaps a we're-going-to-hell-anyway-so-why-not? buzz-saw whir on top, below, and to the side of everything. The guitars are sharper, and the whole thing sounds like it's one bowl of Cocoa Puffs away from collapsing. Argos likes that about the album. "We recorded the last record in one take," he says. "We had a bit more time this time to try different things. But we're both a bit manic about things. We'd text each other late at night: 'We should try this!'"
The song about a funeral, "Ice Hockey," isn't as mopey or as self-reflective as all of the group's newfound gravity may imply. In fact, it's typically Argos in the way it — and he — finally gets around to making a point. "The joke is, when people ask me what I want played at my funeral, I can say ice hockey," laughs Argos. "It's a bad joke, but I thought it would be nice to write a song for my funeral. My friend died last year, and I started thinking about that. Everyone always has 'Over the Rainbow' or something sad like that. I thought it would be nice to have a song about me going into space. But I really didn't think this one through. I don't want to be playing a song for my funeral live all the time."
Don't let all this talk of dying and singing lessons and working overtime on the new album steer you away from Brilliant! Tragic! Truth is, if you've stuck around long enough to hear Art Brut vs. Satan, there's probably a few things you'll like about it. There's nothing as sharp, smart, or revelatory as "Formed a Band." And the quick hits found in "DC Comics and Chocolate Milkshake" and "The Replacements" kinda lags in the new songs. But Argos' exasperated, detached, and bored tones haven't given way to the real thing yet.
"The lyrics are less direct this time," he admits. "But I love writing about mundane things, like reading comics, and making them exciting, like, Let's go have a drink and talk about Superman. That's what I love about songwriting — it can be about anything. I write about what I hear on the train or read on someone else's Facebook: 'Oh, what's going on in his life?' Being nosy inspires me."